Behind the lines…Diaspora

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    I heard a strange school named two weeks ago at the All-Class State Track Championships in Casper. The announcer was giving lane assignments before the Class 1-A boys 1600-meter run and said, “Ethan Van Why, Prairie View.”

    I’m a sports junkie, especially small school sports, but I’d never heard of Prairie View. I asked a couple of people and discovered it was a charter school in Chugwater. Further investigation revealed that Chugwater High School was closed, and Prairie View had risen in its place.


    It was strange in a couple of ways. Chugwaters’ enrollment had dropped to 10 students in high school, but from reports at the meet the new charter school had 40 students and was likely to grow.

    Who knew?

    Another conversation at the Class 2-A West Regional meet in Shoshoni three weeks ago with Kemmerer head girls’ basketball coach Phillip Thatcher indicated big changes for the Rangers. Kemmerer is currently the largest Class 2-A school with an enrollment of 188 students.

    Thatcher told me that 250 new homes are going up in Kemmerer in anticipation of the new nuclear power plant being designed, and soon to be implemented, in the little Lincoln County town.


    What that means to Kemmerer High School is more than double the current enrollment with an estimate of 385 students in grades nine to 12 within five years.

    Switching between 2-A and 3-A is nothing new for the teams in the Southwest. Lyman, Mountain View, Pinedale, and Big Piney have done it for years.

    Tourism has taken the guesswork out of the Pinedale Wranglers and after a century of competing with Dubois, Wind River, Shoshoni, Cokeville, and their traditional rivals in the Punchers, Eagles, and Buffs, the Wranglers are a lock in Class 3-A for a long time.


    As a guy who was offered the first head football coaching job at Jeffrey City as a college senior back in the spring of 1980, it’s no surprise. I didn’t take the job, and I’m glad I didn’t, the Longhorn enrollment dropped from almost 200 high school kids that year, to barely 40 by the next year.

    Jeffrey City remains the poster child for “boom and bust” in Wyoming high schools.

    The job I took, at Niobrara County High School in Lusk, is another interesting study of the demographic challenges small towns across the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rockies have faced since the mid-1960s.


    Lusk was a power in Class A sports from the 1940s through the early 1970s. The Tigers sported long winning streaks, and in a story retold to me many times at the Fireside or at Men’s Night on Wednesdays at the Niobrara County Country Club, the Tigers, defending Class A basketball champions hammered the defending AA champion Laramie Plainsmen in a game played before the Wyoming Cowboys took the floor.

    My wife graduated from Lusk in 1977 with a senior class of 56 students. This year the mighty Tigers, the terrors of the Absaroka Class A Conference, and later the Class B Texas Trail league, drop to Class 1-A in all sports.

    It’s difficult for me to believe.

    Lusk is a real town, with stores, a hospital, lots of motels, well-maintained streets, a stoplight (that’s a biggy for small schools), two banks, the county courthouse and a proud tradition.

    You don’t find all of those in Pavillion, Ethete, or even Basin and Greybull, much less Farson, Baggs, or Ten Sleep.

    Little schools are the heart and soul of little towns. There might be a game between Natrona County and Cheyenne Central to determine the top seed in the Class 4-A football playoffs, but most people in both communities don’t even notice.

    That’s not the case when Kaycee hosts Midwest, or Wind River makes the 26-mile trip to Shoshoni. It’s the social event of the season when these small school teams take the field.

    I’ve written about the diaspora of the small towns of the Great Plains and Rockies many times.

    It’s most evident along US Highway 20 between Valentine and Harrison, Nebraska, but you can see the weathered paint, decaying buildings, and fading facades of businesses that flourished just a generation or two ago along U.S. Highway 85 from Cheyenne to Torrington and spots all across the vastness of Wyoming.

    Hal Ketchum was right when he wrote, “The world must be flat, cause when people leave town they never come back.”

    I’m not sure what the nostalgic tug is for me, but knowing the history, tradition, and pride that people in Dubois, Cowley, Burlington, Cokeville, and Saratoga have in their school and their heritage is Americana in microcosm to me.

    It’s the way things once were. That should still be in larger communities but remain in these small towns.

    One night I was riding the Tiger Bus back from a football game in Hanna. We’d whipped the Miners 29-2 on their home field, grabbed dinner in Medicine Bow at the Virginian, and were heading back to Lusk via Sybille Canyon, Wheatland, and the Guernsey Cutoff.

    Our athletic director, Dick Price was driving the bus and tuned the radio to “Country Lovin’” KERM/KGOS at 1490 on the AM dial.

    We’d beaten Lingle Ft. Laramie a few weeks earlier, and as long as we didn’t lose two games were already the Texas Trail champions.

    Lingle was hammering Guernsey-Sunrise. They were up 42-0 and still throwing deep, attempting onside kicks, and doing whatever it took to run up the score.

    The Vikings had a great athletic tradition, but they were young and inexperienced that year.

    I asked our head coach, Jerry Fullmer who had graduated from Lingle in the mid-60s why they were running up the score on Guernsey.

    “Payback,” Jerry said, “They ran it up on us in 1965.”

    The seniors on our team were a year old when that travesty occurred. But that was the nature of small school athletics in the early 1980s and remains so today.

    There will be a new look next basketball season with Thermopolis dropping to Class 2-A. The Bobcat boys are loaded, but maybe not loaded enough to handle the returning freshmen and sophomores that Craig Ferris coached to his seventh Class 2-A championship in early March.

    The summer is the off-season, but speculation runs high in every little and not-so-little town across the Cowboy State.

    It’s who we are, and I’m thankful I live here and get the chance to cover all these teams.


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